WHEN Mark Viduka last started a game for Middlesbrough the day almost ended in a bout of fisticuffs between the striker and a home supporter in the Riverside car park.

His latest showing on Teesside didn't result in anything as acrimonious but he did reveal he hasn't lost any of his fighting spirit. His sublime strike on the stroke of half-time landed a severe blow to Birmingham City's Premiership survival aspirations.

The game against Aston Villa early last month was a surreal occasion.

Aside from Viduka's post-match altercation, chairman Steve Gibson had to appease angry fans demanding manager Steve McClaren's head on a platter after another wretched performance.

Tensions from the terraces even boiled over on to the pitch and one disgruntled fan hurled his season ticket at the Boro dugout in disgust, such was the abject nature of the home side's display in the 4-0 home defeat.

But the Teessiders have rallied since the Villa reverse and have enjoyed three consecutive Premier league victories, secured a quarter-final place in the FA Cup and are through to the last 16 of the UEFA Cup.

Viduka is a most frustrating footballer.

At times against Birmingham, as he has done all season, his outward demeanour displayed a couldn't care less attitude and an insouciance to the cause.

Certainly his hints last week about his future lying elswhere wouldn't have endeared himself to the club's supporters.

But then he nonchalantly conjures up a goal of real brilliance. A strike that maybe only half a dozen or so strikers in the Premiership could contrive - a perfect riposte to his critics.

The Australian international, who only played because of illness to Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, received a short ball from a diligent Lee Cattermole with his back to goal on the edge of the 18-yard box. He quickly turned and left a pitiful Alex Bruce on the seat of his pants before advancing past Martin Taylor and, just when the opportunity seemed lost, Viduka swapped the ball from his right foot to left and slipped it past goalkeeper Maik Taylor from a narrow angle.

McClaren hailed his controversial striker's fourth Premier League goal of the season, his third against Steve Bruce's side this term.

"It was a great goal, but that's Mark Viduka and that was the difference between the two sides," he said.

"He has been patient - he has had to be. I think Hasselbaink and Yakubu are the top scorers in the Premier League since the turn of the year. We have said to him just be ready and he got that and he took that opportunity."

It would be fair to say Boro were fortunate to take a lead into the half-time break.

Prior to Viduka's strike the visitor's wasted two gilt-edged chances. First Emile Heskey contrived to head wide when presented with an opportunity unmarked in front of goal from Mario Melchiot's cross. The former England international should at the very least have directed his effort on target.

Then the returning David Dunn should have done better than poke an effort at goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer from close range on the half-hour, when the creative Jermaine Pennant slipped a ball around Franck Queudrue in the inside channel.

Boro's best opportunity prior to the goal fell to Yakubu three minutes after Dunn's effort.

The Nigerian striker displayed his class to turn past the pedestrian Bruce but wasted his good approach work by clipping inches wide of Taylor's goal.

After the break the football on show - not helped by a pitch resembling a cabbage patch - was scrappy but effective from the home side.

The Boro backline remained dogged in its resistance and restricted the Blues to only one clear-cut chance. Schwarzer was equal to it, however, and earned his wages by turning over the Dunn's point-blank header five minutes after the interval.

But it's results Boro need more than performances and all in all the Teessiders were happy to drag themselves out of a relegation mire and secure an 11-point cushion over third-bottom in the process.

The Boro boss admitted the clash wasn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination but he was happy to claim all three points.

He said: "We didn't play well and we weren't satisfied with the performance but the result was important and we got it.

"We've played well in other games - I don't think anyone that saw us play Chelsea thought we were boring. Yes, we ground out a result against Stuttgart to take us through. What we've got are performances that are not always going to be perfect.

"Our record has not been bad since the turn of the year. We got back to basics, which was defending and keeping clean sheets. That always gives you a platform to win games.

"We've got players who can create but also strikers who score goals. We've got a nice balance so we can grind out results. We found the right balance last season. We haven't this season but we're starting to get it."

McClaren believes the result sets Boro up perfectly for Thursday's game UEFA Cup tie with AS Roma and for the rest of the season.

"I hope that the Roma game will be a marvellous occasion but it will only be great if we get a good result," added the Boro boss who hopes to have Stewart Downing back from injury.

"The season started today. We're targeting a top half finish but we're also in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup and our priorities will change a little bit. We could end the season well but in two weeks the season could be gone again."